Corbyn, it wasn’t all bad

I was ready to let the Corbyn era drift off into the sunset and enjoy the fond memories of some and the disdain of others. That was until I read Sarah Baxter in the Sunday Times, whose words compelled me to write yet more words.

Baxter, who I recall vaguely but fondly, from the early New Labour years when she was at the New Statesman, wrote a tirade against all things Corbyn, demanding indeed a “Corbynite clear-out’.

Look, I was no real backer of Corbyn. I did vote for him in 2017, for reasons I’ll explain. But I never believed it would work as a project. But such a ‘year zero’ approach by the likes of Baxter fails, it seems to me, to learn anything. 

This matters because Corbynism happened for a reason. Years of austerity, the shift to the gig economy and massive graduate debts left swathes of people ready and willing to adopt quasi-Marxist politics for the very good reason that capitalism had failed them. It wasn’t going to pay them or house them. Could they ever find security or start a family? Mix in climate change, corporate tax dodging, even dodgier foreign wars and bone dry technocratic political culture, and the ground had been beautifully but unwittingly prepared for a left-wing project like Corbynism. 

“It was always about the wave, not the surfer.”

Of course, anyone who had experienced the politics of the 1980s knew better than to swallow the whole ‘Jeremy is the new politics’ line. But it wasn’t hard to see why younger generations did. They had to experience it for themselves, for good and bad. 

By the time the moment for Corbynism arrived in 2015, the so-called moderates that presumably Baxter backs, were so bereft of new ideas, culture or charisma that Corbyn romped home. The modernisers had long since stopped modernising and instead regurgitated weak versions of 1998 politics as if the crash in 2008 had never happened. 

There are many substantial criticisms that can and should be laid at the door of the Corbyn project. Not least the way anti-Semitism festered during its reign and saying anything positive about the Corbyn era in no way makes up for this appalling episode. But it did attract thousands of new people to Labour, not all of whom could have been old Trots, and new ideas were allowed to flourish, like basic income, the Green New Deal, universal basic services, new forms of public ownership and more. Meanwhile the moderates offered nothing by way of new concepts, strategies or policies. 

Brexit and the electoral hole Labour fell into in 2019 was not just the making of Corbynism, though it undoubtedly made it worse. Rather it was dug from 1997 onwards. New Labour never had a good word to say about Europe, opting out of so many Social Directives and encouraged mass migration without underpinning this with the social infrastructure to cope in terms of homes and incomes. New Labour was too relaxed about the City and too keen to commercialise public services. In all this, and its cultural humiliation of all things Old Labour, the voting figures prove it started loosening the bricks of the Red Wall before even 2005. The defeat last December is owned across the Party. 

But Corbyn was never a serious prime ministerial figure. That isn’t the fake news of neo-liberalism out to dupe us all. It’s the cold harsh truth of a politician who, however well-meaning, never expected to lead Labour, never prepared for it and didn’t take it seriously when it happened. 

Being anti-austerity is necessary, but knowing how to manage and run a political party and project is also a requirement of real leadership. The sad truth is it wasn’t even a gentler or kinder form of politics as promised. Just recall Andrew Fisher’s resignation memo where he spoke of the toxic culture right at the heart of the leader’s office. These things matter. They really do. 

I remembered very early after Corbyn won in 2015, talking with Jon Lansman, who runs Momentum, offering advice on why and how the Corbynites should and could reach out to others and be more inclusive. I knew I was wasting my time and his, but still felt compelled to try.  Of course, a PLP that refused to ever accept the legitimacy of Corbyn’s win never helped. But the surprisingly good showing at the 2017 general election was the moment to open up from a position of strength. Instead, it seems, they believed their own hype and circled the wagons even tighter. 

So, the Corbynites refused to learn anything about the professionalism and management skills of the Blairites. There was nothing good to say about the many achievements from 1997-2010, despite the mistakes. In turn, it seems from Baxter, the right of the party has nothing to learn from Corbynism. Politics frozen in time. An endless loop of either 1975 or 1997. All rock-solid certainty that shares a common and overwhelming trait of politics done to people by politicians who think they know best. It turns out they don’t.  

The deep answers we face about the crisis of progressive politics in the tumultuous age lie for Labour way beyond the narrow politics of either Blairism or Corbynism as if there are only ever one of two choices. A different theory of change is offered here by Compass. Critically it sees the prime role of the state as being in service to myriad emerging networked and collaborative organisations in civil society and the social economy. A politics centred on negation not imposition. 

Back in 2015 I said I was voting for the wave that the Corbyn moment gave political life to. I was clear I didn’t have confidence in the surfer. His moment has now come and gone.  But the wave of anger and hope that swells in our society is there to be honed and harnessed and put to good effect. Especially now, given the Coronavirus. 

Starmerism, whatever it is, beyond obvious decency and competence, will steer its own course. But it would be wise to take the best from the past and not try to make out it’s year zero all over again.

2 thoughts on “Corbyn, it wasn’t all bad

  1. I think we should always be wary of articles appearing in our very Tory supporting press. They will always try to create a bogeyman image for whoever becomes Labour leader. Remember when they dubbed Ed Milliband ‘Red Ed’ or a ‘class war zealot’. He was hardly that, or do you think he was?

    In economic terms Jeremy Corbyn is a social democrat, he wanted a fully funded welfare state but would have nationalised probably less than Clement Attlee did who brought in the NHS as well. Time has passed and the name of Attlee is now honoured, so it might have been with the economics of Corbyn?

    This time round the press concentrated all their venom on Rebecca Long-Bailey but they were wrong-footed as Keir Starmer emerged as leader. Now they are hurriedly saying he is ‘boring’. So he gets a good head start. I’m glad he is going to energetically confront anti-Semitism in the party. So let’s give him our full support and, when the press start on him in earnest, don’t let us go along with them, even part of the way.

    Maybe Compass should have an agreed opinion on what should and what should not be nationalised? I think the railways should be run as one enterprise, ie a monopoly, so therefore should be nationalised. A private monopoly is the worst of all worlds. The water industry has to be run efficiently and water resources protected, it is a natural monopoly, so I think it too should be nationalised. For me that is about it. What do others think?

    I am not a Labour member but fair is fair.

  2. You are quite right when you say it wasn’t all bad during JC’s term of office. Yes he was a bit of a maverick concerning some areas of the middles east and other areas of conflict. I believe Jeremy was as surprised as anybody when he secured the leadership. And I am sorry the way he lost his position to a bunch of misfits charged with the day to day running of the current Labour Party. I make no judgement on the new leader. I joined Labour in 1956 a time of the uprising in Hungary. I am still active and a member of Halton Council Executive Board. In all my timeI can honestly say I have
    never heard one anti Semitic comment. How can we as a Labour Party claim we are a people’s party when we practice positive discrimination on selections, it is a poor show an we are loosing many young males which much to offer.
    Dave Cargill

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